by Joshua Thusat
When I’m eating, my head moves down to meet the utensil with my mouth. This simple act seems animal compared to my in-laws who—I’ve noticed—remain professionally postured, lifting even dangerously swishy soups with their spoons, bite after bite, to their faces.
My energy is depleted in two daily stages that lead to hunger: I worry about everything; then I become exhausted and stop caring. It’s this second stage where I’m ready to put my head in my supper and suck. Shoveling food into my body gets me to the door, to the brink, where I push through dread and trembling so I can effectively worry again. In fact, I’m ready to worry by dessert.
My wife’s family doesn’t do that. Dinner is a Brigadoon. If I happen to be dining with my in-laws, they talk about practical things while I sit quietly and ponder how existence precedes essence. They debate what to have for their next meal, what bread to bake, whether or not herring is gross. They recall for the thousandth time how the Christmas tree wasn’t strapped onto the roof of their car and came flying off, needles like blood everywhere in the road. They talk politics—but since everyone agrees, it gets heated only in the way you get heated on an exercise bike, until my father in-law decides to rile things up by saying he doesn’t understand why stop-and-frisk laws in New York are controversial. Both my sisters will try not to remark on the unfortunate food options while the men devour everything.
Meanwhile, I serve as the ideal audience with the Neanderthal-curve of my back and my generally blank chewing face. I rarely say anything. This family is—every one of them—ten times smarter than I am, so I flounder on my side of the table in a sea of abstract concerns. No false moves. Any comment from me drops like a thud on the floor for the dogs to lap up.
That’s why I stick to joking around, or topics I consider safe, like old summer jobs and how much cash everyone keeps on hand.
In the past five years, kids have been added to the mix. The oldest, Ellie, talks. And if the conversation doesn’t include her, she’ll make it include her. While she yammers on about pinecone spaceships or forces us all to stop and pray mid-meal, the others continue to converse while occasionally glancing and nodding at her.
I can’t pay attention to all of it. I’m one who struggles to eat and read the cereal box at the same time. If I’m completing a DIY project, I scan the directions for the present-progressive tense because it indicates that I’ll be required to do two things simultaneously (which means I’ll need a YouTube video). So, while Ellie is chucking a pinecone across the table to prove that it cannot fly, it is nearly impossible for me to respond to my brother-in-law’s position on Vanilla Ice. We will simply have to circle back to the topic at the post-prandial beer.
It’s at these moments, dining with my wife’s family, where I notice markers of my economic class, of which I’m assuredly part of a lower rung. My wife and I grew up in the same small town, and while people think it is interesting that we knew each other in high school, I think it’s more interesting that two people from such different social classes ended up together.
Her family lived in one of the beautiful houses along the lake, where fish leapt out of the water gutted and fried. I grew up in a series of properties owned by my grandmother. Mimi brought her trash over and we’d rummage.
I’m joking about rummaging, of course.
During my in-laws’ meals, it seems to me that their intelligence and comfort has been fostered by—and may even have its origins in—sitting around the table conversing, making and eating food together in confident poses. Their culture begins here; it is a cause. Whereas in my world, our philosophy determined our dining culture. Independence! Adventure! A meal could be eaten around a table, it’s true. But it could also be eaten standing over a sink. (Yesterday I ate my cereal over the sink to see if it might be the culprit for my technique. It’s hard to tell.) In my teens, we sometimes unwrapped our meals in fast-food restaurants around a plastic table, or we ate meals on plates balanced on knees in front of the television. My meal-times betokened a life of freedom and—on those nights where we had to fend for ourselves—self-reliance (though given the options in the fridge, self-reliance usually meant some type of dessert, unless you wanted to forage, quite literally, outside—and who has time for that?). But in my wife’s life, meal-times betokened stability—a routine frustratingly communal.
In my culture, this is boring. A chore. In her culture, it is not.
As far as what we ate, my mother made cheese spaghetti, glorified Mac & Cheese, which reminded her of grandpa. We ate it with gusto. My grandmother often made hamburger gravy over mashed potatoes. Today, my wife recoils as if witnessing a castration whenever I suggest it as a main course. The most common food in those days was the sandwich. The sandwich is ubiquitous. It is something upon which my wife and I can build a future together. Tuna or peanut butter; fried egg or egg salad; every single sandwich under one banner should be awarded the Nobel.
My dad oscillated between buying McDonald’s take-out and cooking a rare delicious meal that required a beloved activity called de-glazing. To strike a more exotic note, he once taught me to use chopsticks in the Sandusky Mall right next to a little airplane that I couldn’t wait to drop a quarter into and sit my Mongolian-beef-filled stomach on.
In my wife’s family, the legume is the sheriff, and he regulates everything.
Him and his deputy, the lentil.
I used to think, these people have money. Good God! Why are we eating more beans and rice? More vegetarian tacos? Soup after soup after soup with bread? If you’ve grown up with food scarcity, I’ve heard that you can view food differently when you’re older, that you might hoard food like a prepper that buys in bulk, or you’ll eat too much, like a hamster trying to store it in your cheeks. It can take time to learn that soup and bread will, in fact, fill you up. Soup brings me back to the beginning, everyone around the in-laws’ table, arms lifting utensils as if participating in a yoga class. We are humans, after all, but it’s hard to think so while watching me slouch forward to shovel sustenance into my mouth.
My wife loves to cook, and the menu has been handed down by her family, so for the second half of my life (nearly twenty years), my diet is her diet. When I return to my childhood home, I find myself attempting to persuade people to eat healthy, but carrots are a crucible. I point to their diet as the central explanation for issues with weight, depression, self-hatred, lack of motivation. It’s a mix of low blood sugar and too much sugar. As an example of the first, years ago I visited my cousin in New Orleans and he joked, “I bet you’re one of those people who will eat three meals a day now.”
Indeed I am.
To the second point about too much sugar, it’s hard for me not to tell my family that Capri Suns and strawberry ice cream are not solid members of the fruit group. My therapist finally told me to just enjoy my relationship and stop trying to change them, because food choice is always a hot-button issue. And yet I continue guerrilla warfare tactics, as I did last year. I opened the fridge in their house and saw a choice between grapes and mini-pudding snacks; I rooted for the grapes. I pumped my fist quietly. I assumed a corner had been turned, so I helped out by limiting their options. I deftly devoured the pudding cups to give the grapes a leg up. Go grapes! Go!
I understand that food is a sensitive topic. I do. With my wife, I still want to eat what I want to eat, too. I’ll argue for greasy and fried. There are glorious times I get what I want, and her family completely enters my comfort zone. For instance, if they agree to pick up a fish fry Friday from a local bar in Wisconsin, we bring it home, throw it on a plate and dig in. I can see that everyone uses their fingers a lot more. They hunker down in their chairs with glistening lips. Occasionally a head dips toward a French fry and I think to myself, Ah, I’m home.
About the author:
Joshua Thusat received his graduate degree in English from Bowling Green State University. His most recent work can be found in Penlight Magazine and Change Seven. He teaches writing in the Chicagoland area.